spiteseeing

Yes, this is a neologism. I made it up just the other day. It’s a word that’s needed, because what it names has existed for some time. It’s the tourist equivalent of hate-watching.

What is hate-watching? It’s watching something that you loathe, precisely because you loathe it. It’s indulging in irritainment (entertainment that irritates you). It seems rather popular these days. People can download whole series on Netflix and sit there loathing every second and making snarky comments from the comfort of their couches or beds.

Well, you can’t do spiteseeing from home.

It’s not too likely that someone would plan a whole trip just to see something they despised. It’s not inconceivable; indeed, I think A.A. Gill has made a minor practice of it just to fuel his entertaining subgenre of slasher travel writing. But usually if you go spiteseeing it will be an excursion or stopover on an otherwise enjoyable trip.

The example that came to my mind first was going to the Champs-Élysées while on a trip to Paris. It’s infested with tourists and high-end chain stores; it’s about the only place in Paris to find a Starbucks, and that Starbucks typically has a huge lineup. In Paris! The city of boulevard cafés where you can drink a grande crème and eat a croissant and watch the world walk by! Yes, spiteseeing is what you do, in the middle of a nice trip, to remind yourself that people are stupid and that you’re vastly superior to them. You take a break from looking up at things to look down on things …and people.

Your choice of spiteseeing excursions will depend on your tastes. If you like high art, a famous tourist trap amusement park may be worth a day. If you like fine wine, some demotic jug-winery that tours people around in open-topped train-like bus-wagons may be worth a snicker with your swirl and spit (you may also enjoy hearing the people at the tasting bar next to you compliment the disgusting swill, which you are tasting just to remind yourself of how good the other wineries are). If you are skeptical of organized religion, a trip to Rome will not be complete without a visit to the Vatican (although, honestly, most of the grand attractions of Rome will have some spiteseeing potential for the truly dedicated anti-religionist). If you like fine dining, you could go to the McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome, or, to really crank it up, if you’re in Paris you could do what A.A. Gill did (him again!) and stop by L’Ami Louis. And wherever you are, if nothing else presents itself, you can find the nearest shopping mall. Unless you like shopping malls, of course.

Now, we may think of spite as referring to resentment, cultivated ill-will, and grudge; that is the most common sense today. In spite of that, however, it is still suitable for use anent sights with which you have no personal history. Spite, after all, is shortened from despite (the noun, from which our preposition today came), which in turn is from the Latin verb despicere, which gave us despise; despicere is de plus spicere, and means ‘look down’. Not as in literally look down, of course, as for instance from the top of the Eiffel Tower; you may as readily look down on the Eiffel Tower, in the figurative sense, while standing level with its base (and some distance away, muttering to yourself about how long the lines are to get up).

Etymology does not determine present meaning, of course. But we still have the nice phrase in spite of, as in seeing it in spite of yourself, and viable usages in phrases such as just for spite. And it makes a nice play on words in spiteseeing.

Spite has an interesting mix of flavours. It can be refreshing and lively with its overtones of sprite, and it can be disgusting and disgusted in its taste of spit. It also calls to mind site, of course, which in this case may be unfortunate. Why unfortunate? Because it will reinforce the common reanalysis of sightseeing as site-seeing.

We use site now so often that many people assume that site-seeing is the word they have heard. But really it’s originally sightseeing, as in seeing the sights; while that may seem tautological (“Is it possible to see sight?”), in this case a sight is something to be seen, something worth seeing, as in a sight for sore eyes and a sight to behold and so on. The sense of sight as something striking or remarkable dates from before AD 1000, although sight-seeing dates from only the early 1800s (when touring became a big thing). Site-seeing showed up first in the mid-1900s.

Now, of course, language changes and all that, and who knows but I may not be able to stem the tide of site-seeing (although it’s still far less common), but to me a site is the plot of land that the sight I want to see is located on. Unless it’s a gravesite, you know, or other historic site (e.g., “On the 15th of June, 1215, on this site was signed the Magna Carta”) – in the latter case, it’s the plot of land where something happened that’s no longer there happening, it’s just crowds of twits wandering around on the site looking for a sight that’s not to be seen… it’s not that there’s no there there, it’s that there’s nothing but there there, and there’s nothing there on the there, just dirt or concrete and gum someone happened to spit. So it’s the sort of place you wander through out of pure spite, to look down on.

5 responses to “spiteseeing

  1. For more than 35 years your spiteseeing has been my sightsewering.

  2. I thought a sightsewer was someone who needlepointed landscapes, though. So I’d likely misread “sightsewering” to mean “being engaged in the activity of being one who does site-based needlepoint.”

  3. Dude, you need some sunshine. Take a vacation to Hawaii or something!

  4. Oh I did enjoy that last paragraph. It articulated something I’ve thought often in guilty decret, but rarely dared articulate. I’ve even apologised for lacking the “historical gene”, the one that gets people excited over places that recommend themselves to our senses not at all, but to some centre of obligatory awe that I seem to be missing. Thanks, James!

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